The Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners and Walnut Cove Volunteer Fire and Rescue are having difficulties reaching an agreement over a contract to provide fire services for residents of the town.
Last week, Commissioners approved a contract which would provide $61,500 in funding, $4,500 less than requested by the department, and require the department to abide by all North Carolina Open Meeting laws, but town officials expect the department to reject the contract.
Fire Chief David Willard told the board the department had served the town for 60 years and continues to try to improve its service for the entire area.
He noted the department ran 1,210 calls last year, participated in n over 3,000 hours of training, provided multiple education programs , checked smoke detectors throughout the region, served 149 families in need of Christmas assistance, and provided flushing and preventative maintenance for the town’s fire hydrants.
He said the department is also on standby for community events and storms, assists the town with traffic control when there are water-line leaks, and even provided ladders for the hanging of effigy vultures last year.
“Besides tackling the day to day duties, we made significant changes to our how our business operates,” said Willard, noting that the department hired a consultant to redraw the department’s charter and completely rewrite all of the department’s by-laws. “We also designed, oversaw construction, and took final delivery of our first custom cab fire engine. It is our goal to continue being an active partner in the communities we serve. We are not only an emergency response agency but an organization that strives to provide an avenue that our citizens and visitors can come to for any assistance and feel they have received a great service.”
But Willard said doing so costs money and said he hoped the town could get to a point where it was paying the same amount as those residents in the service district who pay for service through a fire tax. No fire tax is charged in Walnut Cove, with services being paid for through an annual contract with the town.
“We want to get everyone to the point where they are paying the same amount,” said Willard. “The town accounts for about 18 percent of our budget, but we run about 42 percent of our calls in the town. We are trying to slowly get to the point where the town is matching what everyone else in the district is paying.”
Commissioner Sharon Conaway said the town was already paying as much as it could, arguing that residents in the service district were reaping benefits from the town as well.
“Why most people choose to live around the town is they get the benefits without having to pay the taxes,” she said. “We are bearing the costs of providing services that the fire service district gets to take advantage of. For example, if you go north, east or south, then you are getting water thanks to the town of Walnut Cove. Water that is paid for by taxpayers. The citizens in the service district get a reduction in their fire insurance because of the water we provide.”
She said the amount the town contributed to the fire department had increase dramatically in recent years.
“You are looking at a 120 percent increase in 20 years,” said Conaway. “We can’t keep sustaining that.”
Willard said the amount the department requests each year increases because the cost of providing service continues to rise.
“Costs have gone through the roof,” he said. “Now we are at a point where we will have to add paid staff so salaries will go through the roof.”
He said that while the town may provide some services for residents in the fire district, it also required more vigilance from the fire department.
“You have 2.2 square miles where there is $103 million worth of property and jobs and schools and homes and daycare,” he said. “What happens if one of your major employers burns down? Do you think they will rebuild? No, they will move on. That is what we don’t want to have happen. That is why we want to provide the best service we can.”
He said that the equivalent of an eight cent tax, 0.5 cents more than the department is asking the equivalent for this year, would provide the department with a stable budget for years. Conversely, Willard said if the town took over providing fire protection for the residents it could cost the town hundred’s of thousands of dollars each year just in salaries.
“We are just asking for $4,500 more this year, we are just trying to get everyone even,” he said. “Do you want us to not do the same things we are doing in the fire district? Do you want us to provide less service in the town because you are paying less money?”
Mayor Lynn Lewis said the town only received so much in taxes each year, making it difficult to provide increases in the fire contract.
“You are asking for more money, year after year,” said Lewis.
“Yes we are,” replied Willard, “because you have been getting the deal of the century for a long time. We are trying to provide an even service to all of our districts. Why would you not pay the same as a property owner in the county?”
Willard suggested that the town create a system where it tied the contract price to the county fire tax, or even created a separate town tax that would match the county fire tax.
“They are not really asking for the town to pay equally,” said Conaway, explaining that tying the annual contract to a county-set tax would negate any leverage the town had in negotiating a contract. “They are asking for the town to surrender our authority. They are asking us to surrender any negotiating issues we might have. Are they going to put the citizens interests first or are they going to put their own interests first?
Open meetings a key point
Conaway also demanded the new contract to include a requirement that the Walnut Cove Volunteer Fire and Rescue Board of Directors follow state open meeting laws, a practice she says they used to follow until the recent rewriting of their by-laws.
“It is 100 percent tax-payer funded so why should citizens not be allowed to attend their meetings?” asked Conaway. “Every fire district in Stokes County is subject to open meeting laws in some shape or form, why should Walnut Cove be any different?”
Town Manager Bobby Miller said he expected the town would have to revisit the contract over the open meetings provision at a special meeting in the coming weeks.
“The indication from the fire department is they have an issue with it,” said Miller. “They feel like they are in compliance with the law for non-profits and may feel like we have overstepped. If they choose to send it back to us and not sign it, I have asked them to send it back with a list of their objections so we can put it back on the agenda for reconsideration.”
Last week, Willard said the wording on meeting shad been changed at the advice of the department’s lawyer to best reflect the state requirements for a non-profit organization.
The by-laws now read: “Persons other than Directors may attend any regular, special, or emergency meeting of the Board, in a non-voting capacity, at the invitation of the Board or one of its members. Persons other than Directors may attend any closed session meeting of the Board, in a non-voting capacity, at the invitation of the Board by a majority vote of directors present. A Board Member, Fire Chief or any other person can be asked to leave a closed session meeting by a majority vote of the Directors present.”
“If someone comes in the door acting chaotic or threatening then we can clear them for safety purposes,” said Willard, noting that the by-laws are not intended to keep residents from coming to the meetings. “All of our meetings are open. Anybody can come to them at any time.”
Conaway said that sentiment needed to be clearly defined in the department’s bylaws, or in its contract with the town.
“He says everybody is invited to their meetings, but how do they know when they are?” said Conaway. “Even their own fire department members are not allowed to attend unless they are invited by a member of the board.”
She noted that the bylaws also refer to closed session meetings, a key element of the open meeting law.
“Why do you need closed session meetings if you operating under non-profit rules? They are swimming in both pools,” she said. “I think our citizens should have the option to attend these meetings. They have said it is not their intent to stop the citizens from coming, but then why is there a problem? If they they can come up with a legitimate rationale for why we should support this, then let me know.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.